The leaders of the Triad’s four largest law enforcement agencies are African American. Just like many companies and organizations, their departments are tackling the often divisive and taboo issue of race. And these leaders are guiding those conversations.
“I realized a long time ago that life for me is no longer about what I can get. But it’s about what I can do to make others better,” explained Winston-Salem Police Chief Catrina Thompson.
For Thompson, that responsibility means challenging her staff to have open and honest conversations.
“So acknowledging the brutality that occurred against African Americans and a lot of times people don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “We realize that in order to move forward and to continue to progress, we’ve got to acknowledge it. We’ve got to see it for what it is and then recognize the things that have occurred to move us forward, and figure out what it is during this time that we are obligated to do to continue to move that forward for generations to come.”
She’s the city’s third Black police chief, and the second Black woman.
“I think about how my grandparents would feel if they were here and could see me in this position. And I think that’s the same for some of my colleagues across the state,” she said.
On Feb. 1, she brought the state’s Black law enforcement leaders together to tour the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro to honor the anniversary of the sit-in movement started by the Greensboro Four.
“I think for some of us it wasn’t until we were there together and we looked around and realized ‘wow this is going on right here in the south in North Carolina,’ again just 61 years from the sit-in movement that occurred right here in our Triad area,” she said.
Greensboro Police Chief Brian James was there too. He talked to FOX8 about the last year that has once again put law enforcement right in the middle of the race conversation.
“The most challenging moment was really at the pinnacle of the protest after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, because it was, so it was so impactful to so many people, and it was such an atrocious incident and it woke up a lot of people, not only to look at police, issues in the community, but also to look at all the issues that plagued the community and around racial equality and a number of other things,” he said.
As a Black man who grew up and went to college in Greensboro, then rose through the GPD ranks, he understands the relationship between the department and the city’s Black community that’s steeped in mistrust that goes back decades.
“We have to continually work on those relationships and be cognizant of the fact that every time we have an interaction with a citizen, it’s an opportunity to either build a relationship or actually destroy a relationship,” he said. “But again, you know certainly I’m aware of history. We have to look at that. We have to consider it, but at the same time, if mistakes were made, we have to learn from those and we have to go forward and try to do better.”
As people continue to fight about Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter – as if they’re mutually exclusive – Thompson is clear about her personal reality.
“First off, I know there’s no doubt in my mind or anybody else’s mind that has seen me that I’m African American. There’s no hiding it. And I’m extremely proud to be an African American. I am equally as proud to be a law enforcement professional. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else in life,” she said.
She hopes her place as a Black leader in the blue can advance the conversation starting with acknowledgement of the past.
“Particularly stories of how law enforcement was used to further the oppression or enforce Jim Crow laws that existed at that time,” she said. “But we can’t ignore the many, many more examples where law enforcement has been used to improve the lives, to save people, where law enforcement officers have given their lives.”